Here was the thing about Yosef: No matter what, God was with him, and he prospered.
Yosef was left by his brothers, and brought to Egypt and sold. As soon as he arrived in the house of Potiphar, an official of the Pharaoh, "Adonai was with Yosef, and he became a prosperous person, and so he was in the house of his Egyptian master" (Genesis 39:2). Then, when Potiphar's wife accused him of sexual wrongdoing, and he ended up imprisoned, "whatever he did, Adonai made it prosper" (39:23).
I thought of this aspect of Yosef this week, in the context of something that seems fairly insignificant. Tim Tebow is a professional football player, quarterback of the Denver Broncos. Since his days as a college quarterback at the University of Florida, he has been known as a devout and religious person. He gained some national notice in 2010 during the Super Bowl, when he was in a commercial with his mother about her decision not to have an abortion when she was pregnant with Tim.
In the football world, Tebow is regarded as an unusual quarterback who may well not last. But this season he took over the leadership of his team, and has led them week after week to, dare I say, "miraculous" comeback victories. When he scores, his end-zone ritual of bowing in thanks has become known as "Tebowing", a new minitrend. (At teebowing.com, a fan site, there are pictures of people doing this all over the world, including the Kotel in Jerusalem.)
Essentially, Tim Tebow is inviting us to see him like Yosef: whatever he does on the field, God is causing him to succeed. (What other explanation could there be, since football experts don't buy into his skills?) The sports radio programs, especially the last two weeks, are now full of debate about whether his overt displays of religiosity are appropriate, over-the-top, offensive, a turn-off to fans, etc.
Now this is football, and just to be clear, there are other places that need the divine spirit much more than the end zone. But these kinds of cultural discussions do hold a mirror up, and it's worth checking on what we see.
So first I'll say that, as a religious person, I see something of a double standard. We tend to expect a certain amount of bad behavior from professional athletes, and a good deal of childishness, offensive behavior toward women, and barroom brawling is overlooked. Or, explained away as part of the scene, "where they come from", or what not. Though to be fair, I think the expectations on athletes are rising, and the storm after Penn State is a good indication of that.
But a lot of people are simply ridiculing Tim Tebow because he is religious, in an open and enthusiastic way. Say what you will (I will say what I will just below) -- Tebow's ethic is a positive influence on his team and community. People praise him as a super teammate, and an inspiring leader. For him that flows from his faith, and why shouldn't it? Athletics is a discipline, and his faith feeds into his excellence. He's not harming anyone, he's lifting people up. That's some of the best of faith. If people are uncomfortable with that, let them be as uncomfortable about greed in sports generally. It's still acceptable in America to condescend to religious people, especially to evangelical Christians. Not only to worry about having them impose their religious, but to degrade them as cute or quaint or from another era. That simply shouldn't be.
Still, Tim Tebow is not Yosef. The big differences are these. First, the Torah tells us that God prospered Yosef not when Yosef was on top, but when he was on the bottom. When he was a slave, a prisoner -- not a superstar. Second, the Torah tells us what other people saw in him, or what was obvious about him from an outside perspective. You don't see Yosef calling attention to himself in Egypt as blessed by God. He had done that in the past, when he was little, bragging to his brothers about his dreams of being in God's favor. But he grew up.
Yosef came to experience God's blessing, and to become a channel for prosperity. But he was probably the same age as Tim Tebow when Yosef learned not to flaunt it. God didn't need Yosef to spell it out for other people. It was enough for him to live it. There was, or would be, a reason for Yosef to bear that kind of blessing. It wasn't football; it was family, and to save his people.
Hopefully if Tim Tebow stick around, he'll grow into this as Yosef did. For his own growth and sense of perspective, and for the good name of religion in America.